The Swedish-Italian School
What’s in a Lineage?
Whether or not a singer is aware of it, every voice teacher has a lineage—that is, a progression of the teachers with whom their teachers studied. Through exploring this type of “family tree” and its national origins, an informed student might develop some idea of a teacher’s pedagogy. But would these ideas be accurate?
One proof of a lineage’s perceived value is the astounding number of teachers who claim to be the last surviving proponent of the “true method” of bel canto. The truth is, the transfer of pedagogy from one generation to the next can be as convoluted as a game of “telephone”. Often, by the time the so-called method arrives at the fourth or fifth generation teacher, it is as far removed from the original teaching as the original sentence usually is in that old children’s game. But other times, through careful documentation and conscientious preservation, the ideas and exercises that have brought success to generations past can actually be offered to singers in the present.
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In my decades as both student and teacher of singing, I have experienced both possibilities. My first two major teachers, Metropolitan Opera legends Blanche Thebom and Margaret Harshaw, had both studied with women (Edyth Walker and Anna Schoen-René, respectively) who had studied with the celebrated singer and composer Pauline Viardot. Despite their common “ancestry”, Thebom and Harshaw’s pedagogies could not possibly have been farther removed. In fact, the sharp discrepancies in their methods led me to my doctoral research on the scientific revolution in vocal pedagogy, and the role that Viardot’s famous brother, Manuel Garcia, played in it.
David Jones, Alan Lindquest, and the Swedish-Italian School of Singing
My current teacher and mentor, David Jones, also has a teaching lineage that links him directly with Manuel Garcia. (For more information, please read the History of the Swedish/Italian School of Singing.) Maestro Jones has spent over 30 years conducting ongoing research, documenting and disseminating the teachings and specific vocal exercises of one of his master teachers, Alan Lindquest. Through these efforts, his students have a direct link with pedagogic traditions that originated in Italy and were disseminated in Sweden in the early 20th Century.
Alan Lindquest (1891-1984), an American born to Swedish parents, was trained by several different students of Manuel Garcia’s, in the United States where he began his studies. Although this pedagogical “ancestor”, Garcia, was a Spaniard by birth, his own teaching lineage linked him directly with major Italian teachers of the bel canto era. Garcia’s father, the tenor for whom Rossini wrote the role of Almaviva in Il Barbiere di Siviglia, had studied with the Italian teacher Giovanni Ansani, who in turn may have taken lessons from Porpora himself (the teacher of some of the most famous castrato singers of the 17th Century).
But Lindquest’s ties to Italian vocal traditions were not limited to his teachers in the United States. As a young man, Lindquest also traveled to Stockholm, Sweden, to study. There, he worked with two students of Dr. Gillis Bratt, a Swedish throat doctor and opera singer, who had been trained by students of Garcia. (Bratt’s students, with whom Lindquest studied, were Joseph Hislop, a Scottish tenor who taught Jussi Björling, and Inge Isene, a dramatic soprano who taught Kirsten Flagstad after Dr. Bratt passed away.) Given his training, Dr. Bratt was a strong proponent of the Italian School in his work at the Royal Opera House in Sweden. But he and those he trained also used the mixed vowels of his native Swedish to enhance a singer’s acoustic combination of roundness and vibrancy referred to as chiaroscuro (dark/bright) timbre, a pedagogical goal of the Italian School.
The Limits—and Treasures—of a Lineage
In biological families, clearly, a child’s parentage does not guarantee his beliefs or talents. Likewise, an intelligent singer will not assume that a teacher’s lineage guarantees either a sound pedagogy or any teaching ability. However, in some families, children also clearly benefit from their parents’ wisdom, and pass down lessons learned to their own offspring, sometimes repeating the exact words that parents spoke to them, and sometimes simply capturing their essence. In the same way, a singer can benefit greatly from the accumulated wisdom of generations, passed down through a line of conscientious teachers who honor their mentors and often quote them explicitly.
I aspire to be a teacher of this type, who, like David Jones, is a responsible curator of the treasures that have been entrusted to me in the form of pedagogic concepts and vocal exercises. In this way alone, I believe my teaching lineage is of some value to my students. It is not valuable because I or any of my teachers possess some special or “secret” knowledge about the voice. (In this day and age of voice science, “secrets” do not exist.) It is not valuable because the historical vocal exercises that I use in my teaching have magical properties that cause all of a singer’s vocal challenges to melt away. (Only a singer’s diligent, focused, and consistent use of these exercises can accomplish that.) It is valuable only because it links my studio with hundreds of other successful teachers and singers, who have intelligently employed these ideas and exercises for over two hundred years in pursuit of beautiful singing.